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The New African American Writers
of Mississippi

C. Liegh McInnis
Jackson, Mississippi

C. Liegh McInnis
C. Liegh McInnis. Photo by David Brian Williams.

I was once asked by a non Mississippi literary critic if I were from somewhere else, would I be a more noted or popular writer? My immediate answer was a simple no. It is not your region that causes you to write well or be a good writer. It is your skill. As I began to probe a bit deeper into how I felt about the question, I realized that it was a question that I truly could not answer because it is, for me, too inconceivable to fathom. I am a Mississippian. That, and that alone, makes me a Mississippi writer. You do not have to be born in Mississippi to be a Mississippi writer. To be a Mississippi writer, some of your time and work must be invested into discussing Mississippi from the standpoint of someone who has lived there. In short, if what happens in Mississippi has an immediate and definite affect on you and your work, you are a Mississippi writer. If I were to move, I would still be a Mississippi writer. I would just be a displaced or traveling Mississippi writer for my sensibilities would be the same. I would merely be practicing those sensibilities in a different location or commenting on how those sensibilities make me different from others indigenous to my visiting areas. Furthermore, if we were to change history all together and have me born somewhere else, I would be a different person and a different writer. If this is too literal a translation and discussion of the question, allow me to answer it this way. America's perception of Mississippi writers is two fold. America has a vision of Mississippi that the Meccas of mass media (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and now Atlanta) have been unwilling to change because it is easy and lucrative to continue to hold Mississippi as a backward, poorly educated, and technologically inferior region so that any time is needed a movie or a book or some three minute news spot about country towns, they can come to Mississippi. As for me, specifically, I do not think that it would be possible for me to live, think, act and write in the same manner if I lived else where. That is the beauty of regional art. That is the beauty of reading writers who do not live where and how you live. It is the good (useful) artist who can articulate the uniqueness of his existence and still encase it in the realm of universal humanity.

The problem of forced identity

The Mississippi writer's biggest problem is the problem of forced identity. I was motivated to write my first collection of fiction because I had not read any fiction dedicated to the lives of Mississippians twenty-five and under living during the nineteen-eighties and nineties. Most, if not all of the fiction and poetry being published from the South, especially Mississippi during the nineties, save the writers of Atlanta and possibly some of North Carolina, was still discussing the nineteen sixties and earlier. Even Satisfied with Nothing, a wonderfully insightful and entertaining book by Earnest Hill, was quite impressionistic when it came to being placed in a certain time frame. It has been dubbed the Native Son of the nineties because it employs excellent literary techniques and was written in the nineties. But, it is not a particular or certain reflection of the ideologies and changes of the nineties as Native Son is of the nineteen-forties. This is true for far too many works by Southern writers because too many literary critics tie all literature of the South to Black Boy's evolution to Native Son after the experience of living the Ethics of Living Jim Crow which, of course, emerges directly from Jubilee by Margaret Walker Alexander. Yet no one seems to want to read the new South's Outsider which is not surprising when you understand that nobody wanted to read or face Native Son's evolution to the Outsider. And all of this is to make little mention of Etheridge Knight, the famous prison poet, about whom Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his Norton Anthology of African American Literature states that "His (Knight's) Belly Song and Other Poems (1973) is one of the most significant volumes to emerge from the Black Arts Movement. Knight was an inspiration to all those who felt poetry should be a functional and communal art with a strong oral artist in the middle of the circle" (Gates and McKay, 1867). Yet, I did not know Knight's work as a student at Jackson State University, the urban university of the State. It is probably because Knight's work removes from the presence of Wright's and Alexander's work those editors who made their work palatable to Whites and upper class Negroes. Knight should have been the bridge from Wright and Walker to my generation, but his voice was silenced even by Mississippi literary scholars for being too dark, greasy, urban, and raw, making Mississippians realize that the civil rights movement, which may have begun in the South, had not given African American Mississippians the right to their own voices. Additionally, the other bridge from Wright and Alexander to my generation is Dr. Jerry W. Ward poet and critic. His poem "Don't Be Fourteen in Mississippi" is exactly the kind of combining of historical foundation with new urban rage that marked Knight's work. The problem for Ward became his immense success and notoriety as a critic as well as his lack of post-seventies vernacular. The insight and the anger are beautifully cormbined in Ward's work, but the Black Arts Movement associated anger with profanity and condemnation of a Eurocentric world. Ward's work is more retrospective in that it laments more the eroding of Black culture than it does condemn White America for causing that erosion. Yet, in this Ward becomes more of a nationalist than any of us. His focus is on African American life rather than the outside influence. Yet, his largest hurdle is that he is a Mississippi writer in a State that refuses to teach courses on African American Mississippi writers. Dr. Ward is an accomplished, well published poet, editor and critic to whom I was not introduced until I had left Jackson State University and studied at the University of Southern Mississippi. Why was his work not taught to me at lSU? I was told that it was because we want to give our students the same standard information that the world has. When will our writers become standard information? This is the problem for the new African American writer's of Mississippi.

Four boxes

Jolivette Anderson
Jolivette Anderson, author of Past Lives; Still Living; Traveling the Pathway to Freedom. Photo by David Brian Williams.
There are generally four boxes into which African American Mississippi writers of the nineties are placed. Some Northern writers want to read Mississippi writers when they feel a need to reconcile their Northern existence with their inherited but forgotten Southern sensibilities. Secondly, other Northern writers read Mississippi writers purely for history. They look not for art, only documentation. The two are different in that the former is allowed to be a bit more philosophical than the latter which is resigned to being merely literary science no matter how much artistic training and imagination the author has. Thirdly, there are the Southern writers and readers who so desperately want to be a part of the African American Mississippi cannon that they spend their time copying and mimicking their Mississippi ancestors thus producing nothing new, imaginative, or timely. Finally, there is the Mississippi writer who is so ashamed of being a Mississippian that he submerges himself in the culture of other places so much that no one knows what he is saying. It reminds me of young brothers from Clarksdale or Crawford or Bobo or Hot Coffee or any other one gas station, former plantation Mississippi town who speak with a New York accent after spending the summer watching Black Entertainment Television's Rap City or MTV’s Yo ' MTV Raps on the piped in cable. Young writers such as the Martin triplets who, with their combined collection of poetry, attempt to breathe new air and life into that down home Mississippi sensibility of God, religion and family. Because a work such as this speaks to those sensibilities which have been etched into the hearts and minds of most African American Mississippians, it is obvious that the work and the brothers will garner popularity. The negative affect is that not only will the Martin brothers be rewarded for their craft and accomplishments, a book of this nature by such young writers will be used to stifle the alternative young voices of those African American Mississippians who are not "church" folk, do not turn me other cheek, and frequent the speak eases, juke joints, cafes and coffee houses of their generation. The new African American writers of Mississippi are not out to purposely distance themselves from the heritage of Mississippi. They merely wish to address the new-old ills. They want to refashion the verse, vernacular, imagery, and icons to address the old ills which have been refashioned. Mississippi is still the worst State on civil rights, education, health care, and economics. The new African American writers of Mississippi merely want to address the new tricks of oppression as well as celebrate and condemn the successes and failures of the "New Negro" of the South.

The works of Charlie Braxton, Jolivette Anderson, David Brian Williams, Marcus "Uganda" White and myself best escape the above mentioned four categories and exist as African American Mississippi literature of the nineteen-eighties and nineties. This is not to say that we ARE the African American Mississippi writing scene. This is to say that we have freed ourselves from the shackles and limitations of the past and are now focusing our energies on articulating our present existence as opposed to merely wearing the clothes of our ancestors.

Charlie Braxton

Charlie Braxton, a graduate of Jackson State University (JSU), the school where Dr. Margaret W. Alexander taught and developed the humanities courses, is the most accomplished writer of the group. A native of McComb, Mississippi, he is a published poet, playwright, and one of the most noted Hip Hop journalist in the country, as well as having studied directly under Dr. Jerry W. Ward. In the work of Charlie Braxton you have the well traveled Mississippi writer who has influenced writers from other areas and has, himself, been personally and directly influenced by writers from other areas such as Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, Haki Madhubuti Kalamu ya Salamm, Tony Media, and Kevin Powell. Yet, Braxton has managed to balance his inherited Mississippi lineage and heritage from Wright, Alexander, Knight and Ward with his love for the work of African American writers from other areas. Braxton is and remains a Mississippi writer.

Ahmos Zu-Bolton
Ahmos Zu-Bolton, poet, professor and author of A Niggered Amen and Ain't No Spring Chicken. Photo by David Brian Williams.
The first example of Braxton's ability to bridge the urban and rural worlds of Mississippi is through his two plays, Bluesman and Artist Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Bluesman on the surface is a traditional, Mississippi, rural piece. Underneath, it is a piece about traveling distances, which is taken from the metaphor of the traveling bluesman. The traveling bluesman was in search of urban America, a place where he could sing his blues and get paid. Artist Doesn’t Live Here Anymore abandons the rural setting to discuss the class conflicts between rural people dislocated to the urban areas of Mississippi to find work. Artist and his wife are torn because their ideologies are torn between the rural and the urban. And, just as the reality of the so called new Mississippi, a permanent barrier exists between Artist and his wife.

His "Torn between Two Worlds: Jesus at the Crossroads" poem is undeniably black as well as it shows the evolution of young African American Mississippians frustrated with the whole notion of the inertia of the Black Southern Church and its inability to address the concerns of African Americans falling prey to the urbanization of the State. "And it came to pass that the son of man was called down to the crossroads where the Loa of the dead and the spirit of the undead meet in the sweet by and by" (Speyer and Park, 72). This first line sets the mood not only for this poem but for Braxton's work and the evolution from the rural to urban of the poets who follow him. The whole notion of the crossroad has always been a heavy icon in the blues and for Mississippi. The literal crossroad is intersection of Highways 61 and 49 which intersect in Clarksdale, Mississippi. This intersection is important because it is the place where the old meets the new. It is the place were you leave the plantation and head into the city. Both 61 and 49 run from Delta to urban, 61 runs from Cleveland, Mississippi to the heart of downtown Memphis, Tennessee, and 49 runs from Clarksdale, Mississippi to the heart of Jackson, Mississippi. Braxton continues this transformation in the final lines of this poem with "... yes, Jesus went down to the crossroads to dance between two worlds his holy body breaking to the beat of a music loud enough to shake awake the black saints of old" (Speyer and Park, 72). This line is laced with symbolism of the duality of Mississippi and its transformation. The "dance between two worlds" echoes what Ray Charles has always said about secular and spiritual music, "The only difference is that they say 'Lawd, Lawd,' and we say 'Baby, Baby'" (Charles, 1996). The two worlds are not just spiritual and secular, they are urban and rural. When Braxton has Jesus' "holy body breaking", he is obviously referring to break dancing, a form of dance indigenous to the Hip Hop culture. This is meant to be representative of the influence of urban America on Southern beliefs and sensibilities. Above all, we must ask why is Jesus at the crossroad. Man is typically seen at the crossroad. What decision must Jesus make? Braxton alludes to this by using African icons such as Orishas and Elegba. The decision is one that African American Christians must make, particularly in understanding that Mississippi culture is soaked with African culture. As Braxton, himself, addresses the issue, "There is more retention of African culture in the State of Mississippi than anywhere else in American beside the Carolina islands. Yet, African American Mississippians have been so Christianized and, more specifically, Europeanized that we act more African than anyone else but don't realize it for our denials. Our conscious denials are killing us because subconsciously we attempt to reconcile ourselves to it even though we don't know what it is. We are looking for a dirt road on a paved city street" (Braxton, "Personal Interview" 1998). He follows "Jesus at the Crossroads" with "I Dream of Jesus". "Last night I dreamed I saw Jesus pimp strolling peacock-proud down Crenshaw blvd., looking for lost souls in the valley of the damned" (Wideman and Preston, 273). This is not traditional Southern literature. It has always been acceptable for African American Mississippi writers to take on White oppression, but it is not acceptable for African American Mississippi writers to question the role of Christianity in that oppression or the failures of Southern African Americans to take Christianity to the streets in the manner of the Nation of Islam. With these two poems, Braxton is giving voice to a section of African American Mississippians not heard since Knight. Also, Braxton further attests that Sterling D. Plump's When the Mojo Calls I must Come should be given the credit for unearthing the African layers of African American Mississippi Culture. "Many of the Mississippi writers of my (Braxton’s] generation think that I removed the veil of African American Mississippi culture to reveal the African foundation in our work. But, it was Plump who first voiced this African-Mississippi connection in a real and consistent sense" (Braxton, 1998). Braxton is, in affect, rebuilding the bridge back to Wright and Alexander through Knight, Plump and Ward, but doing so in a manner that address the issues of his time and not of theirs.

David Brian Williams
David Brian Williams, author of Simple Love; Mirages.
David Brian Williams

David Brian Williams is the Northerner who relocated to Mississippi in order to attend a Southern, historically black college or university (HBCU), JSU. A poet, actor, lawyer, lighting and sound man, he was able to make a smooth transition because his family, namely his father, mother, and uncle (the late poet, Otis Williams) held firm to their Mississippi roots and sensibilities. Along with Braxton, Williams represents the urban expression of the deep South. He is a Northerner who, after graduating from JSU, attended law school in Boston and then returned to the South to practice law and write. His poems "Say Blood" and "Still They Come" speak directly to the left over problems and issues of the civil rights movement. "I heard you say while talkin' among the brothers that the sixties wuz coming back. I say you're wrong. You implied that we are ready to re-pick, re-afro, re-dashiki, re-boycott, re-sit in, re-burn, re-do, what you Colored people keep trying to forget. What you pseudo intelligent nanonitwit superspade klansman in disguise who act like you don't know that Ole Miss still don't want yo' black ass ... why fight with old stale Molatov Cocktails when fresh lasers burn even hotter" (Williams, Mirages, 3-4). In "Still They Come" Williams is both questioning and calling a current generation to take up the call of the struggle of African Americans. "And still they came, in boats and on foot to the notion that freedom was just around the corner or over the creek. And without fax or cell phone or beeper the word got out that freedom WHS just around the corner or over the creek. And with all of our technology, we do not come" (Williams, Mirages, 77).

Of the group, Williams is the most balanced with one foot firmly planted in Mississippi's blues poetry tradition and one foot striving in Mississippi's new tradition. His poems, "Simple Love," "Check One" and "I Want to Have Church," speak the universality of the traditional African American experience. Williams is, as his uncle was, a juke joint poet. He has the ability to take a poem such as "Hoochie Coochie" and rework it in a manner that it speaks to African Americans of the nineties and beyond. When he does a poem such as "Birdland", which is an ode to the club, The Crystal Palace, where great artists such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie and others performed and the historic Farish Street district of Jackson, Mississippi, or even the arousing "Be Afraid", which contains sexual imagery that Mississippi poets have traditionally thought of as taboo for their work, he is simultaneously paying homage and defining his generation. Finally, as one of the babies of the Shop Poetry Readings of the seventies which boasted regular and special appearances of such names as Dr. Jerry Ward, Leo Kayam, Cassandra Wilson, Richard Brown, Sonia Sanchez, Terri McMillian, Furahah Saba, Chinua Achebe, Amiri Baraka, Brian Ward, actor on the television series Sea-Quest was a founding father, Teddy Edwards, the late Freddie Waits, Al Fielder, as well as many of the students and products of Dr. Tommie Stewart of In the Heat of the Night and A Time to Kill, Williams' re-establishing of the jazz and poetry readings at the Birdland Cafe in the historic Farish Street district is taking poetry and jazz to those whom the academicians have forgotten. An area of drugs, homicides, and theft, Williams has established a weekly Sunday night reading where young men, who would at any other time and place attempt to kill each other, can come and enjoy the music and literature of their people.

Marcus "Uganda" White

Marcus "Uganda" White is a native of Grenada, Mississippi (a Delta boy) and, like Charlie Braxton, a student of Dr. Jerry W. Ward, having studied at Tougaloo College. White is representative of so many of the good Tougaloo poets in that his work weaves the rural and the urban in such a manner that it effectively shows the complexity of being a Mississippian from walking on urban streets that at any turn may run into cotton or soybean fields. White's work speaks of the new juke joints which, in truth, are not really that different from the old juke joints, but he delivers his characters in such a manner that you understand that what is happening in their lives was put into motion by a Civil Rights Movement that was left unfinished and died from a lack of attention. As a poet, he is probably the most polished and academically sound of the group. He can do in four lines for Mississippi poetry what it is taking me several pages to say. His poems "As Black as They Are" and "Problem 54" are able to epitomize the new Mississippi in a way that informs us that the rage of the new Southern Negroes will not be quieted by spirituals. When the little boy in the playground of “Problem 54" wants the teacher to "come to the playground during recess so that he could teach her the wads that Jimmy taught him like bitch and fuck," you understand that the irreverence that elementary children have for school and teachers is not because they are innately vile and wild but because they sense that they exist in a public school system that does not want to teach them. "She wasn't teaching me no math either. She was teaching me racism, the hands on approach."

Mississippi Voices

Along with White there are several other emerging Tougaloo and Jackson State Poets, too many to mention here. But I would be remiss if I did not mention Michael ”Diallo" McClendon, Colleen White, and Kamelia "Queen" Muhammad. Their combining of Afrocentrism with Mississippi tradition only works to bring home the work of a Jolivette Anderson. All of these writers are definitely influenced by and motivated by W. E. B. Du Bois' notion in his essay "The Criteria of Negro Art" that "all art is propaganda" (Gates and McKay, 757). It was McClendon, along with M. White and Derrick Johnson who have established one of the most successful open mic poetry settings in Mississippi, Southern Vibes which has been re-named Mississippi Voices. This setting takes place every Saturday night, currently at Highlites Fine Food and Drinks from 8:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. As much as it is the work and talent of all of the above mentioned writers, it may be their desire to maintain a writing community until both Mississippi and the Nation open up to these new voices which may truly be their lasting impact on their respective genres. Johnson, a modern day civil rights lawyer and businessman, puts it best when he states, "It was our intentions to develop a place that would be the center of a Mississippi Black Arts Movement. We wanted a place where young African American professionals could come and enjoy their culture, exchange ideas, and network. We didn't have this in Mississippi on a regular or consistent basis." (Johnson, 1998). Johnson is right in understanding that artists need a home. Despite the lack of support and patronizing of the African American middle class, all of the artists mentioned in this essay have been dedicated to keeping alive the tradition as well as creating something that is uniquely their own. Yet, until the local African American middle class opens up to the new expressions of their local artists, the voice of the African American Mississippi arts movement may never rise above a whisper. The reluctance of the local African American middle class to get behind these new writers speaks volumes to the local as well as national limited perceptions of what art is and what art produced by African Americans from Mississippi should be.

Howard Ramsey, Il editor of Spirits on High, Souls of Fay, and Black Thoughts and co-founder of New Visions Press (TN), Nayri Miller, author of Ascensions, and NaTasha Ria Gibson, a Tennesseean and two Northerners, are three writers who had a profound impact on the current Mississippi writing scene. They are mentioned here for two reasons, the quality of their work as storytellers disguised as poets, the manner in which their ghetto tales show their uncanny, organic relationship to plantation tales, and the manner in which they allowed their Northern tales to embrace their Southern heritage. Finally, they represent the urbanization of the South, the manner in which third and fourth generation Northerners, because of the prodding of their mothers and fathers and grands, returned to the South to be influenced and to influence. Now that Miller and Gibson have relocated to the North, they stand as ears and bridges to the North for emerging African American writers from the South.

Judy K. Jefferson
Poet / professor Judy K. Jefferson enjoys poetry at Mississippi Vibes. Photo by David Brian Williams.
Anderson is a Louisiana poet and actor who relocated to Mississippi to work with a local theatre company, New Stage Theatre. Her book and cassette tape Love and Revolution fulfills the long awaited need of African American women writers from Mississippi. Anderson brings to the table the notion of the influence of and competition with popular culture. An instructor at Tougaloo College and with the Young People's Project, Anderson understands the need and ability of a poet's work to entice, attract, and recruit young people whose ears and eyes are filled with Hip Hop. With the incorporation of a full-time band when she travels, Anderson, as Braxton and Williams, makes no apology for going after the younger generation. Having opened for Patti LaBelle and Brian McKnight Anderson is taking her Southern literature to the masses with no hang-ups or apprehensions. Anderson is also a scholar of African and African American culture. This is her biggest asset. She is that shade of Black that African Americans in Mississippi have been waiting on since the death of Malcolm X.

When I was an undergraduate student at JSU in the late eighties, I asked Dr. Ivory Phillips, professor of social science, did he remember where he was, what he was doing, and how he felt when he was told that Malcolm had been assassinated. This was when I gained my first lesson of the wide divide between the South and the North. He said, "I did not feel much of anything." Noticing the look of concern and confusion on my face he continued. "You must understand that because of the media and our own Southern prejudices, Malcolm was not seen as one of us. Mississippi was a Martin Luther King, Jr. State, as was most of the South. The common feeling of most African American Southerners was 'that X boy got the violence that he espoused"' (Phillips, 1989). Later that afternoon I asked my father who had been so radical during the sixties and seventies that the police would arrest him on the charge of carrying a pencil as a concealed weapon, "cause ya' kno' niggers don't write." I was surprised when he affirmed Dr. Phillips' sentiments.

    "Not only was there not much emotional outpouring, many of us Southern African American Civil Rights People felt a sense of relief on hearing of Malcolm's death because we did not have to deal with him. He was asking the children of the plantation to leave the plantation. King was merely saying integrate into the plantation. Can you imagine what that sounded like to those of us who had spent our lives trying to eat in the "Big Kitchen" of the plantation': break away from America, become self sufficient, be responsible for your own actions. That is a lot for those of us with plantation mentalities to handle. We didn't understand Malcolm until about '67. He scared us. You must understand why turning the other cheek appealed so much to us. Most African Americans of the South couldn't raise a hand to strike a white person in self-defense let alone kill one. And furthermore, 'what dem white folks gon' do to us if we practice this stuff' You have to understand that lynching was a Southern institution not a Northern institution. Lynching was indigenous to the South and was primary in creating and developing what has become none as the slave/plantation mentality. Southerners lived lynching on a daily basis. By the time the sixties roll around, it is firmly etched into our psyche. It was difficult for the mass African American populus of Mississippi to get pass the physical and emotional fear of Iynching. And on top of all of that, they had names like "X" and weren't Christian, oh, hell no!!! Finally, many Southerners did not know that Malcolm had split from the Nation or why he split. We just got sound bites. I had to go to college to understand Malcolm. But, by that time, it was too late. I believe that most of us love Malcolm because we have a false sense of the grand success of integration and are now thankful that we didn't have to do what he told us to do" (Mclnnis, Sr., 1989).

As a student of Egyptology and other African and African American cultures, Anderson is that poet who, through the icons and imagery of her work, celebrates African American culture. Her work affirms Malcolm X's statement, "You can not be concerned about what's happening in Mississippi if you are not concerned with what's happening in the Congo." She weaves Mississippi and African culture so well that it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. African American women flock to hear her tales of broken hearts, female sexuality, and the black woman has the mother of the Earth. Her lyrical and poetic Cane-like piece Past Lives, with introduction by Haki Madubhuti succeeds as Cane succeeds by equally combining several forms and genres and becoming a bridge for the past and the present. Its use of traditional spirituals with icons of the sixties all undercut by her life story as a metaphor for the present danger and evolution of African Americans is both masterful as well as acts as a "talking book" for the lives of African American Mississippians under thirty. Her other pieces call on various ancestors and Egyptian Gods to give her the strength to tell the stories of her Mississippi. And as host of the very popular, weekly, Saturday night open mic reading, Mississippi Voices, she incorporates educational sections into the night. She, as all of us, feels the constant pressure from many of the academicians to come out of the jook joint and the cafe and into the university. But, until the Mississippi university becomes better enabling of the celebration and promoting of modern African American writers, she is inclined to stay in the streets and deal with the current issues of her people.

C. Liegh McInnis

I am a nineteen-eighties and nineties African American Mississippian in every way possible. I am that chicken grease, cafe Negro that both sides would like to shut up but I have a degree and so many other upper class African Americans are too important to teach at HBCU's. If they do teach at HBCU's, they are so busy jumping through the hoops of the State board that they produce little if anything that is of any significance to the nurturing of new African American writers. Inasmuch as 1 am a Delta boy who likes salmon patties, biscuits with molasses and going to the jook joint on Saturday night and sleeping in church on Sunday morning, I am also a cable ready, national programmed radio listener who grew up having himself and his Mississippi defined by cable, Reaganomics, free agent baseball, Prince, and a story or two from his father. I guess what makes my work different is that I grew up with a nationalistic father and an integrationist for a mother and was left to weave my way between the two worlds, constructing an identity that suits me first. Of this mentioned group, I am probably the poorest writer but add myself to the list because of my publications and the fact that both Mississippi writers and readers state that I say things that they would like to say. I guess insanity runs deep. I have watched how a Mississippi audience which oft times deplores profanity in their poetry, begins to sit more and more upright as I keep repeating the phrase, "If you ain't never picked cotton, you can't tell me shit," as if to some that is all the justification they need for staying here. Or when I do a poem like "D Evil of Ntegration" or "Mississippi Like..." and people my age and a bit older come up to me just to shake my hand. Or when I do a poem like "Ghetto Issues," they can relate because "Mississippi's got ghettos too." I know that I am not the appropriate person to talk about my work. I will end this section by saying that I have chopped cotton, been denied funding for college, and been car jacked. For me not to talk about all of these issues is to deny the totality of my Mississippi experience.

The new African American Mississippi writer

Ken Stiggers
Ken Stiggers, satirist, poet. Photo by David Brian Williams.
The new African American Mississippi writer has to find a way to deal with urbanization, the bringing in of more white folks to get the "new" jobs, the migration of crack to Mississippi, the attack of the State on HBCU's, and the worsening of rural areas which were in the dark during the fifties and have continued to deteriorate over the past fifty years. What makes this difficult is that the Mississippi writer knows that every time he picks up the pen, African Americans across the Nation are both consciously and unconsciously looking to Mississippi writers to show that the foundation of Southern sensibilities are still there. Everyone else wants the Mississippi writer to affirm the illusion that although "slow" and somewhat "backwards," we are still the soul of Black America. This hypocrisy and limitation is what is driving the new African American writers of Mississippi to take some of the most profane stances against this illusion, to say, "Hell no, everything ain't all right. Crack is as lucrative as cotton. Your Northern and Western gangs have infiltrated the minds of our Southern gentlemen. We now have men who refer to our women as bitches and whores. We ain't happy, and we don't want our blues to make you feel good." The Southern African American sensibility that pre-dates the Civil Rights Movement is an outdated illusion. We are no longer gentile because our reality and the expectations of the East Coast and the West Coast have sucked us dry. We have spent the last thirty years publishing stories that everybody else wanted to hear. Now we have withered and dried from not telling the stories that we need to express about our existence which has been seen as less important than everyone else's modern stories.

As new African American Mississippi writers emerge, they are too greasy, too urban, too angry, and too far removed from the perpetuated stereotype of Mississippi writers. Even the soothing summer night's air imagery and lyricism of Marcus "Uganda" White is too 'bon-cotton" for the rest of America to place in Mississippi. The stories of Highways 49 and 61 are being replaced with the stories of Interstate 55, 20 and 220. The Delta blues lyric is now laced with urban couplets and imagery. Front porch stories are now street corner updates. This is not to say that these new African American Mississippi writers have no connection to the past. Those elder African American Mississippi writers such as Dr. Jerry W. Ward, Dr. Hillery Knight, Dr. Wanda Macon, and Dr. Marie O'Banner Jackson are providing to these new writers a foundation for their work. Yet it is sad to say that I can only mention these few has elders who are taking an active, participating role in the workshops and open mic venues across the State.

The Delta, Central Mississippi and the Coast

The largest problem is that African American Mississippi writers were never allowed to address the diversity of their existence throughout the entire state. Contrary to popular belief, Mississippi is a very fragmented State with three very distinct regions, the Delta, Central Mississippi and the Coast. The Delta is and always will be farm land, despite the boom of casinos throughout the region. Gambling is not new to the Delta. Now you just stand a better chance of not being cut after winning. The Delta is the home of the blues as evidence of the National Blues Museum being in Clarksdale, Mississippi and the University of Mississippi having one of the largest holdings of blues artifacts. Events like the rise in legal gambling and legal battles on the redistricting of certain farm lands such as Hog farms have created new problems for the writers of the Delta. Central Mississippi (Jackson to Hattiesburg) has always been the urban area. It is where African Americans went for urbanization if they could not make it to Chicago. It is also where they came to attend college at either Alcorn in Lorman, JSU in Jackson, or Tougaloo. These were your progressive black scholars as Mississippi Valley State University and Rust College students of the Delta areas were more conservative. We must remember that the riots and shootings involving JSU and Tougaloo students on the JSU campus took place the same year as Kent State. Where are their stories? Also, Central Mississippi, namely Jackson with its Farish Street District of African American professionals, was the Mecca of African American professionalism of the State. This is not to exclude the fact that the Delta had its locations of African American autonomy and economic prosperity, namely Mount Bayou, Mississippi. The difference is that although it was an all black town it was mostly a rural existence where as the Farish Street District was an urban, professional existence. South Mississippi or the Mississippi Gulf Coast has always been an amalgamation of races where the transient mixed races could migrate from New Orleans to Florida and back, often extending as far as California. Where are their modern stories? The distinction in the three regions is great and can be easily seen in the migration patterns. African Americans fleeing the Delta were more likely to go North and East. African Americans fleeing South Mississippi were more likely to go West. These migrations away from Mississippi would eventually become migrations back to Mississippi by a new generation of African Americans, seeking the peace of Mississippi and not finding it. We can not deny the influence of those later generations returning to Mississippi from the West Coast, Chicago, and the East on modern Mississippi. They are still the old problems of race, class, and caste with the struggle of White Mississippians attempting to garner all of the profits and benefits, but they have new names and titles which call for an evolution in the genres.

Monica Taylor-McInnis
Monica Taylor-McInnis, poet enjoys poetry at Mississippi Vibes. Photo by David Brian Williams.
African American Mississippi literature never has been allowed to deal with these distinct issues in any real or tangible sense. It seems that African Americans from Mississippi suffer from the regional affliction that affects the national mentality of far too many African Americans, the inferiority complex. Since the Black Exodus, African Americans who stayed behind suffered belittling and chastising from those African Americans who left the South. It is as though every Southerner has suffered because of Booker T. Washington's belief that the South was the place for the Negro and his being perceived as being soft on the issue of lynching and other injustices suffered by the Negro. In short, if you stayed in the South, the rest of the African Americans saw you as being "slow," "sorry," "cowardice," and '”backward." After all, "How can you stay where they hate you?' This perception has been perpetuated by the national media. How many major films or television movies have been dedicated to Southern champions of the Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm has a major movie. Where is King's? Every time there is a major work about the Civil Rights Movement of the South, the heroes are either White or from the North. The African American Southerners are bumbling idiots waiting to be rescued by some intelligent Northerner or the good graces of Southern White folks. Check Mississippi Burning. Even in the feature film The Ghost of Mississippi, the central character is a White Southern attorney merely doing his job. When will there be a feature film about Medgar Evers?

The subtleties and intricacies of African American life in Mississippi

It seems that Mississippi bas taken the full brunt of this issue, shadowing the works of African American Mississippi writers. Because of these prejudicial notions, the world, including African Americans, does not want to hear about the subtleties and intricacies of African American life in Mississippi. So, African American writers have continuously adjusted their work to give the Nation what it wants. It is time to say that not every African American Mississippi story opens and begins in a cotton field or a church. Where are the stores of African Americans relocating from the North back to Mississippi because Heaven was not found in the North? Where are the stories of the Jackson Mississippi college student relocating to the Delta to teach? Where are the stories of the Delta citizens relocating to Central Mississippi and becoming urbanized? Where are the stories of the Gulf Coast transients and their blurred and exact world of the color line throughout different Mississippi regions? They are here, but no one wants to publish them because it changes our perception of Mississippi. I have often wondered if so many people like 'Transitions", my short story tale of a sharecropper escaping from the Delta to Jackson, more than the other tales of the book because "Transitions" is something that they know, and a story like "Circle", which involves a group of college students deciding to kill a drug dealer a week, is something that they do not know in reference to Mississippi. Or, is it that "Transitions" reaffirms what most people know about Mississippi and "Circle" forces them to deal with a new Mississippi.

To change our perception of Mississippi is to change our perception of the Nation. It is easy to blame America's race problem on Mississippi in one broad sweep, but difficult to deal with Mississippi and the complexity of her race issue. If Mississippi is not merely a black and white, two-sided, one dimensional race issue, what does that say about the Nation? What all of this does is call for something that most African American integrationists fear, a call for black nationalism. If the happy-go-lucky Mississippians, who for so long just wanted a seat at the table, are questioning integration and its successes, then we truly have a problem with the complacency of African Americans. Mississippi could always be counted on to support integration and Christianity in its art. Now, these new African American Mississippi writers shake that foundation which is sure to cause a rumbling through the Nation.

I do not mind living in the State that has been the measuring stick for race relations of this country. I do mind that the Nation has glossed over the issue of Mississippi's failings in race relations while at the same time denying African American writers from Mississippi to deal with the complexity of who we are. Other African American writers might argue that their glass ceiling and artistic limitations are just as confining, but their is no evidence of other African American writers being as tied and limited by the past as African American Mississippi writers. This is the problem and issue of the new African Mississippi American writers. Their answer has been to go forward with their vernacular, their imagery, and their settings. It is up to the rest of the Nation to decide if it wants to listen.

It must be understood that the African American Mississippi writers of the next millennium will begin to produce works more in line with the Braxton group of writers. They will be, for all practical purposes, carrying on the tradition of Wright and Alexander as handed to them by Knight and their conditions. Not to judge them accordingly is to do a disservice to them, their work, African American writers and American writers. They will be carrying it own by studying, writing, performing, and publishing. The best discourse about poetry is not the essay. It is the poetry created. It is the work that creates the cannon, not the discussion of it. Most importantly, we are forging ahead in the vernacular and imagery of our Mississippi time. In doing this we truly follow in our ancestor's footsteps.

About the author: C. Liegh McInnis is an instructor of English at Jackson State University and author of six books, including: Prose, Essays & Letters, and Scripts, Sketches and Tales of Urban Mississippi. He can be reached at Psychedelic Literature, P.O. Box 3085, Jackson, MS 39207, 1725topp@bellsouth.net

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Published in In Motion Magazine February 26, 2000.


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